You’re familiar, of course, with Italy. With its cobblestone piazzas and ancient churches, with its cozy, low-lit restaurants and clusters of sorbet-colored houses. Your Instagram feeds will be laden with Positano’s iconic striped beach umbrellas, with Florence’s towering Duomo. But I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, a region tucked away in the north-easternmost corner of the country. And you wouldn’t be alone – many Italians have never set foot in this region, either!
If a local, authentic experience is what you’re looking for in your next trip to Italy, then Friuli-Venezia Giulia (or ‘FVG’) is the destination for you. Largely untouched by wandering crowds, FVG is a region governed by its jaw-dropping nature, where the Adriatic sea can be reached from the Dolomite mountains in just one hour. It’s a place where – much like the rest of Italy – food and drink takes precedence, vineyards clinging to the vast open spaces which characterize the landscape of the region.
In this way, and many other ways, Friuli-Venezia Giulia is typically Italian. But, unlike other areas of Italy, it boasts its own unique culture and personality – its heels dug stubbornly into its long-standing traditions. It is, for example, one of only two regions whose dialect is so far-removed from modern Italian that it is considered a language in its own right (the other is that of Sardinia). As you may expect from an area surrounded by such a vast array of countries and regions, FVG is a tapestry of these differing cultures, drawing inspiration from each to create the character for which it is so well-loved by locals and visitors alike.
Venture away from the well-trodden tourist trail on your next trip to Italy and discover Friuli-Venezia Giulia with our regional guide.
Shop in Udine’s picturesque Via Mercatovecchio
Known as the heart of Friulian culture, Udine is a university city situated in the very middle of the region. Its elegant architecture and youthful, lively culture make it one of the most well-visited destinations in FVG. On the weekends, the historic center is often flooded with chatter as people mill between the city squares in search of their next aperitivo.
The newly-pedestrianized Via Mercatovecchio is arguably the most picturesque street in Udine, where tables from curbside bars flood onto the cobblestone streets. Via Mercatovecchio is also one of the primary shopping destinations in the city, with a range of small, independent clothing boutiques to browse. Spend an afternoon here admiring their wares, before heading to nearby Galleria Bardelli, a leafy shopping arcade built in the 1940s with well-known brands such as Zara and Sephora.
Take a walk around the breathtaking Laghi di Fusine
When in FVG, you can’t miss taking a short walk in the mountains – and the picture-perfect Laghi di Fusine makes the ideal place to immerse yourself in Friuli’s nature. You don’t need to be a seasoned trekker to enjoy a hike around these two neighboring lakes, plunged into the quiet wonder of the Dolomites. Just a stone’s throw from both the Slovenian and the Austrian borders, the Laghi di Fusine feel suspended from reality, protected by row after row of pine trees, with the dramatic mountains reflected in the still blue water of the lakes. The family-run Albergo Capanna Edelweiss is a log cabin which overhangs the lower lake, offering a handful of cozy rooms where travelers can rest their heads. For a quick snack or coffee break, Belvedere’s generous wooden terrace proffers an unparalleled view of the surrounding landscape.
Enjoy an evening aperitivo in Trieste
Probably the most widely-known destination in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, the city of Trieste gives the region a well-needed jolt of cosmopolitan flair and is a true melting pot of Slavic, Austrian, and Italian cultures. Trieste is a literary city fueled by its creatives: its elegant, dark-wood coffee houses once served as meeting points for some of the world’s greatest writers and philosophers, including the likes of James Joyce and Sigmund Freud.
Trieste’s coffee culture is one of their proudest outputs, with world-renowned company Illy stemming from this very spot. There is even an entire vocabulary used in Trieste to order different types of coffee. In the evenings, students from the city’s university take to the streets in search of alcohol, stopping at bars tucked behind the Piazza Unità d’Italia or along the Canal Grande for a tangy Aperol Spritz, or – as the night wears on – for a sharp, strong Americano. Cocktail bar Mast is the place to go for unusual cocktails and even quirkier décor, with low stone arches and swings hanging from the ceiling.
Taste San Daniele’s famous prosciutto
The hilltop city of San Daniele is charming for many reasons. Firstly, it is settled just at the foot of the mountains, guaranteeing incredible views at any time of year. Secondly, it boasts a population of just 8,000 people, making it one of the region’s cutest, most pocket-sized destinations. But most importantly, San Daniele is known primarily as being one of the country’s main producers of the region’s delicious prosciutto. The region’s micro-climate is perfect for curing the ham, with winds blowing in from both the Alps and the sea, making this a prized delicacy for over 40 years.
One of the best places in town to sample Prosciutto di San Daniele is Enoteca Prosciutteria La Corte di Bacco. Nestled almost inconspicuously in the shadow of the imposing Duomo di San Michele Arcangelo, this enoteca’s shaded stone courtyard is almost ethereal: the perfect setting in which to enjoy their locally-sourced prosciutto!
Stroll down the streets of Cividale del Friuli
Just minutes from the Slovenian border, the compact Cividale del Friuli is one of FVG’s most unique towns. A vision in vivid blues and greens, Cividale’s centre is bordered by the icy-fresh Natisone river which runs from the surrounding mountains in a rush of turquoise. The Ponte del Diavolo, or Devil’s Bridge, is one of the most recognizable landmark in Cividale and makes for a beautiful photo opportunity.
During the winter months, Cividale is celebrated as the home of gubana: a traditional Friulian dessert made with leavened dough and flavored with cinnamon and dried fruits. Sample this delicacy at the historic Panificio del Foro which excels at preparing sweets over the holidays. You should also visit the Casa Medioevale, a crumbling goldsmith’s house which was constructed during the 1300s and still stands proudly today.
Find peace in the tranquil Marano Lagoon
Often overshadowed by the neighboring Venice Lagoon, the Laguna di Marano is an oasis of calm amidst the chaos of FVG’s vibrant beach towns. Unique in its landscape and in the nature it houses, Marano Lagoon is an undiscovered gem marked by traditional wooden casoni, or fishermen’s houses, which seem to float in the still waters. The Laguna di Marano boasts two nature reserves, each with their own range of flora and fauna, which are best visited by boat.
For a memorable stay unlike anything you’ve experienced before, book a night at the Marina Azzura Resort, whose chocolate-box lagoon and river houseboats sleep up to 6 people. Their wooden terraces make the ideal location for a romantic dinner for two, to be enjoyed as the sunset sparkles across the water.
Order a seafood platter in Grado
At the eastern end of Marano Lagoon lies the island of Grado. Accessible from the mainland by a long, narrow bridge, Grado is one of the region’s most well-visited seafront destinations, as popular with locals as it is with visitors. Although most come to Grado for its golden, sandy beaches lapped by the warm waves of the Adriatic, Grado is best experienced via its authentic osterie, each offering locally-caught fish and fresh seafood.
The best place in Grado to sample the local cuisine is at Trattoria de Toni, a nearly 80-year-old restaurant settled into the heart of the stone-clad city centre. With tables that trickle into the street, this is the perfect setting to enjoy a colorful seafood platter laden with prawns, crab, and scallops, among other delicacies. Toni’s also offers a selection of decadent pastas like spaghetti alle vongole (with mussels) and tagliatelle con tonno e melanzane (tuna and eggplant).
Take in the view from mountaintop city Gemona
Protruding bravely from the rugged peaks of the Dolomites, the city of Gemona has one of the most interesting and heartbreaking stories of any destination in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. In the early 1970s, Gemona was almost entirely destroyed by one of Italy’s most devastating earthquakes; as a consequence, the architecture you see today, although appearing to have leapt from the pages of a history book, has actually been almost completely reconstructed.
In spite of the sadness which cloaks Gemona’s history, the city today is bright and hopeful – its colored stone buildings catching the final rays of the evening sun. For striking views across the valley below, head to the city’s eponymous castle, whose well-manicured gardens are speckled with benches from which you can admire the sunset beyond the mountains.